Monday 27 November 2017

Delirium, Lauren Oliver

Delirium is set in a dystopian world in which love is considered a disease, conversations are monitored, and the only music available is that approved by the authorities. Our narrator, Lena, is a few months off her eighteenth birthday and having the procedure that will ‘cure’ her from ever feeling love. If the reader wasn’t already feeling distinctly uncomfortable with this world it is worsened when she goes for her evaluation where she must stand, essentially naked, in front of a group of assessors, answering questions that will ultimately decide her future – who she will marry and what social class she will be. She knows that her best friend Hana will be given higher status and they will inevitably grow apart  but is reassured that after the cure the memories will fade and she will not miss her. The cure does not only kill romantic love but familial love and passion for hobbies, it turns your life into a dull yet contented existence devoid of any real emotion.

Lena is horrified when she realises Hana is becoming rebellious – listening to illegal music and attending underground raves. Lena has always been so worried of falling into the same traps as her mum, who she is told committed suicide because of love. The flashbacks we witness reveal a happy childhood with a parent who secretly played them music and danced with her children – one perfectly normal to readers but dangerous in their world. Everything changes when Lena predictably falls in love and even braves a trip to the Wilds – the land beyond the border where the uncured and Sympathisers live. She gradually begins to realise the joy of beauty in the world, of feeling deeply, and her eyes are opened to the lies she has been fed for so many years.

We watch as she struggles with these revelations and begins to dread her fast approaching procedure, a day she has long looked forward to. As she falls deeper in love with Alex she becomes desperate to find a way for them to remain together, taking more and more risks, the authorities closing in on them, their world seeming increasingly hostile.

It took me a little while to adjust to the writing style as it’s been some time since my last YA reading, but it is a well-constructed book, the reader finding out more about the world with Lena. Each chapter is headed with propaganda, some even manipulating the Bible to fit the beliefs of the authorities. It is hard to watch as Lena comes to realise how thoroughly she is trapped in this dystopian world. The love story is sweet enough, and believable, and it is moving to read Alex wrestling with the decision to tell Lena information that will shatter the world that she thinks she knows. There is enough in here that you care for the characters and root for their success. I won’t be reading the rest of the series, but that probably says more about my reading habits than the quality of the book.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Contractions, New Diorama Theatre. 14/11/2017

Deafinitely Theatre’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions is its first revival in London since its debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2008. This new take on it creates a bi-lingual version accessible to both BSL users and hearing English speakers. It is staged in an old trading office and has only two characters – the manager (Fifi Garfield) who uses BSL throughout, and Emma (Abigail Poulton) who uses spoken English and BSL in tandem.

The play begins with Emma being called in to discuss with her manager the company’s policies on romantic activities between employees. Emma denies that she is having any such relations with any of her colleagues but her manager does not seem to believe her. After several meetings of a similar ilk Emma reveals that she has begun a relationship with someone in the office, Darren. There follows an uncomfortable scene in which she is asked how good the sex is and how long she imagines it will be until they break up. Things escalate when Emma becomes pregnant and Darren is sent to an office far away. When Emma realises the seriousness with which her manager takes the situation she suggests leaving, to which the response is that she would not find another job – with the job market as it is there are a hundred applicants for every job. Feeling trapped, Emma is forced to undergo ever more intrusive meetings and comply to increasingly unreasonable demands while her manager remains steely faced and unresponsive to any distress.

The story may take the scenario to unrealistic extremes but it makes a valid point about the impact of work on your personal life, and the point at which you should draw the line. It feels a judgment on corporations who care nothing for their employees beyond their ability to make the company money. They would rather have broken individuals, who become almost robotic, than care for and nurture their employees who they consider to be replaceable.

Garfield and Poulton do a sterling job. The audience is led to feel genuine anger and frustration at the manager as she doesn’t flinch once, intimidating and seemingly annoyed at all times. Poulton does an excellent job portraying the increasing desperation of Emma as her manager systematically strips the joy from her life. It is difficult to watch for its intensity, but it is this power that makes it worth watching.

Saturday 11 November 2017

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Barbery’s critically acclaimed novel focuses on the residents of 7 Rue de Grenelle in Paris, specifically twelve year old Paloma Josse, daughter of wealthy parents, and Renée Michel, concierge for the apartment block. Paloma’s narrative sections are labeled as ‘Profound Thoughts’. Her first section is deeply philosophical and it is startling when you realise it is a child speaking. She has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday and to burn down the apartment. She aims to have and record as many profound thoughts before this time as possible. She plays down her intelligence at school, fearing she would get no peace if she showed her true capabilities. In this she has something in common with Renée who hides her love of great literature and classical music to maintain the façade of what she believes people expect from a concierge.

Both characters are fairly isolated in their own ways. Although Paloma lives with her parents and sister she does not feel part of their world, considering their concerns superficial and shallow. Renée has lived alone since the death of her husband, and in her refusal to show her true self is alone in her interests. She does have one friend, Manuela, who works in the same block as a cleaner but who hopes to leave France, much to the horror of Renée. Things begin to change when a long-term resident dies and the mysterious Kakuro Ozu moves into the vacant apartment. He sees beyond Renée's façade and extends the hand of friendship, something which she struggles to accept at first. Eventually their budding friendship leads to Paloma and Renée finding kindred spirits in each other.

It is touching to see Renée’s confidence grow and with it her happiness, though it takes sharing some upsetting memories with Paloma before she is able to see that all she has believed for many years may not be entirely true. These revelations are an important moment for understanding her character and the reasons behind her forced solitude. It is also heartening to see Paloma blossom with her new friends, beginning to see the world in a difference light and questioning her resolve to cut her life so short.

An interesting, unusual book which will challenge the mind, make you smile, and at times frustrate. In parts beautifully poetic, clearly borne of deep knowledge, it will toy with your emotions until the end.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. V&A, London

The exhibition chosen to open the new Sainsbury Gallery at the V&A may not be the obvious choice, but when you step into this immersive exhibition you understand the great potential of the space. It takes you through centuries of opera by focusing in on specific productions and the cities in which they were premiered, fitting the art form into its wider historical context and demonstrating that it is not just a product of the time, but also a catalyst for change.

We begin in seventeenth century Venice with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and end with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in Mtensk in Leningrad and the impact of Stalinist suppression, stopping along the way in decadent Paris and battle-torn Milan. Each section has a distinct look to it that sets the location and feel of the subject. In Handel’s London we are treated to a working replica of a Baroque stage, in Milan there are signs of war but also a display by Matthias Schaller of 150 of Italy’s opera houses, reminding us just what an integral role opera plays in their culture.

There are treasures aplenty – costume designs by Dali, a Rodin sculpture of John the Baptist’s head in the Salome section, and a Degas to name but a few. The Degas is accompanied by a caption explaining why the ballet traditionally appears in Act Three – it was the custom for male patrons to take advantage of the dancers before sauntering into the auditorium after the interval. When an opera decided to put the ballet in Act One there was outrage. Snippets such as these give a more intimate glance behind the scenes of the opera.

On entering, visitors are handed what initially appears to be an audio guide but proves to be a beautiful soundscape that automatically changes according to where you are in the exhibition. This combined with the expertly designed space leads you to feel transported through time and place as you travel through the history of opera. Even if you’re not much of an opera fan there’s plenty to get your teeth stuck into here. Quite pricey at £21 a ticket, but absolutely worth every penny.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on until 25 February 2018. For more details, visit the V&A website.